Lately I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to screen my white shark documentary, Island of the Great White Shark to large crowds, to discuss shark issues with the audience, and be interviewed by newscasters. Their questions and comments would be wide-ranging, expressing a variety of opinions. While I tend to avoid op-ed positions (I find I get long-winded as you can see) and prefer to enlighten people with the facts, sometimes I feel compelled to express just where I stand.
Eco-tourism has taken an interesting journey, evolving from the hunting safaris of the past into photo safaris to its current position as a conservation-minded endeavor. In the process, it has moved from a high adventure, risk-your-life type of activity to that of ecological enlightenment. This is not to say that it is without risk - from inclement weather, to a charging animal, to tenuous or hostile political environments in some developing countries. But those involved in eco-tourism who choose to promote it as a thrill-seeking, dangerous activity are behind the curve regarding its future and in the end can do more damage than good.
This is particularly true of shark diving. Many leading NGOs have turned towards shark eco-tourism as a possible new strategy to pursue. While past strategies of regulation and prohibition have produced legislative results, eco-tourism offers an additional supportive approach by providing countries or businesses with economic alternatives to curtailed anti-conservation activities while also providing a means to educate the general public with first hand experiences.
However, the NGOs commitment to eco-tourism becomes shaky when safety protocols are not strictly enforced, resulting in aberrations like some of the incidents or activities that have received broadcast media or YouTube attention - like riding, grabbing or playing "kung fu" with passing sharks or cage breaches due to unsafe bait handling. The days of high testosterone, "face the malevolent monster" are at an end and undermine the efforts of those who are working hard to build a general public consensus regarding the importance of shark conservation.
I have personally seen how shark eco-tourism can be beneficial, as I brought out in Island of the Great White Shark at Isla Guadalupe. Those shark diving operators who have been a model of effective eco-tourism have supported the island's "biosphere" status financially, supported Mexican shark researchers both financially and logistically, and have acted as unofficial watchguards in the absence of Mexican enforcement due to the country's limited resources.
Criticisms of Eco-tourism:
Eco-tourism is not without its critics and many of their concerns are not based on the welfare of the participants but on the animals themselves. Here are the two most common complaints often levied against shark eco-tourism and my take on the issues:
1. The animal's normal feeding behavior is being disrupted.
Well, to be honest, I have my concerns when feeding takes place pretty much year-round. I am concerned with sites like Stingray City in the Caymans and other similar spots where the potential for negative feeding behavior is possible because of an endless stream of tourists with bait in hand. These sites need specific scientific study to determine if there are detrimental effects taking place.
At a site that I am familiar with, Isla Guadalupe, this same complaint has been used by certain political forces in Mexico who are determined to rid the island of all boat activity. In this case, I believe it is a weak argument. When hang bait is used to attract the sharks, a certain number of them succeed in occasionally catching the bait being wrangled by the crew, but we are talking about bonito or tuna carcasses (the sharks often spit out bony tuna heads) - not a major source of nutritional quantity or quality. For the 3-4 months that the sharks are at the island, this activity does not supplant their normal feeding behavior (primarily pinnipeds and whole tuna) or leave them starving the remaining 8-9 months when they migrate.
I recently had the opportunity to discuss this issue with shark researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The consensus was that a specific study would be needed for a definitive answer (researchers don't like to guess) but the feeling was there is probably some behavior modification regarding the sharks "recognizing" the presence of shark diving boats but a negative impact on their feeding habits from hang baits alone was a bit of a stretch.
2. Animals will associate humans with their food/bait.
With regards to sharks, the fear is that providing bait to sharks will make them associate humans with their food and become more aggressive to divers, surfers or swimmers - in essence that we're teaching the sharks to eat people. While a specific scientific study would be needed on a site-by-site and/or species-by-species basis to determine it once and for all, I can at least add my anecdotal observations.
In all my years of shark diving, I have yet to see any shark become specifically aggressive towards the divers in cages or myself (where I am often more exposed to the sharks) when conservative baiting is present. This is not to say that I am willing to put my arm in front of a floating bonito while a white shark bears down on it and expect the shark to swim around me. Nor will I place myself in the midst of a group of frenzied reef sharks tearing apart a large piece of bait and act surprised if I get nipped accidentally. But with all the various prey and various scents that sharks detect and recognize, to assume that a shark will equate fish blood to human prey is an A equals B logic that my experiences just don't support.
The Shark's Role as Predator:
In building public awareness in shark conservation it is critical that we build consensus based on truth. And the truth is that to maintain a healthy eco-system nature needs its predators - even the big, fearsome ones from sharks to grizzly bears to lions, tigers and so on. Many of these animals benefit from the "warm and fuzzy" factor. We look at the mother polar bear and her cubs strolling across the Arctic ice and we get all soft inside, forgetting the fact that the polar bear is a ferocious predator - a role defined for it by many, many years of evolution.
Sharks do not have the warm and fuzzy factor working for them. They live beneath the waves in their own realm and for centuries all man has been able to do is scratch the surface of that realm and form attitudes steeped in ignorance and fear.
So at one end of the attitude spectrum there is "sharks are killers" and "the only good shark is a dead shark." What we must do is to educate people as to the important role that has been defined for these animals through millions of years of evolution. For some of our larger sharks, their role as predator and scavenger may not be a pretty one, but it is absolutely vital in preserving the intricate weave that we call the marine eco-system.
Unfortunately, I have sometimes seen the spectrum move too far in the other direction. For some people, their enthusiasm as shark advocates pushes them to ascribe social or human-like traits to sharks that don't really exist. To promote sharks as cuddly puppy dogs who smile at our approach is not a responsible position based in fact and can ultimately be dangerous not only to the cause of shark conservation but literally to any person who interacts with a shark, forgetting at a crucial moment the animal's refined sense of self-preservation, of flight or fight. Timothy Treadwell tragically lost sight of this while studying Grizzly Bears.
This circles back to my earlier comments about shark diving. As a professional filmmaker, I am paid to take a calculated risk in filming and sometimes exposing myself to an animal that might choose to defend itself aggressively. Eco-tourists who pay to see these same animals should do so in a safe environment. If we promote some of our most maligned sharks as gentle, loving and smart (in human terms), we are setting up the cause of shark conservation for the inevitable backlash when someone is injured in an unprovoked (or provoked) shark/human interaction.
Let's be true to the facts, true to the sharks, and true to the belief that people can rally behind a cause like shark conservation without being misled, no matter how sincere the intentions. The truth shall, in this case, set the sharks free!